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Random Thoughts About Architecture

When I was eleven years old I wanted to be an architect. I decided this because of the drawings I made, which included some house plans. I had this one design of a two-story mountain cabin that I still have somewhere. Occasionally I would build the designs out of my Legos.


Architecture can make or break a disaster.

As I grew older, I abandoned the dream of being an architect. There were more interesting things to do, such as studying volcanoes or writing stories. I went through a phase where I was interested in politics and thought of being the President of the United States, but then I grew disgusted with politics and wanted nothing to do with it.


Going through different career ideas is pretty normal for children. When I was three I wanted to be a contractor. As an elementary school student I thought about being a teacher. There was the architect phase, the geologist phase, and many other phases that I won’t go into here. Even in adulthood I contemplated different careers before settling on the most recent one.


But this article isn’t about careers, it’s about architecture. When I think about this topic, I think of all the architectural disasters that have occurred in the world, and some that haven’t happened yet. For example, there is a building in downtown Seattle that is shaped like a wine glass. I can just see this one toppling during a large earthquake.


The area is due for a major earthquake, though when it occurs is the question. Tsunami records in the region suggest that major earthquakes happen in the Pacific Northwest every 300 to 500 years. The last big one was suspected to have occurred in the early 1700s.


I find it interesting that the Cascades were much more active after this occurred. Glacier Peak erupted in the 1700s. Mounts Baker and Saint Helens had significant eruptions in the 1800s. Even Rainer had to get in on the action with what can only be described as active steam blasts. There is still debate over whether this was an actual series of eruptions because there was no significant tephra produced.


A suspected eruption at Mount Shasta in the 1700s has since been discredited. Geologists are saying that this volcano hasn’t erupted for a couple thousand years. The same may be true for Mount Rainier, as geologists continue to argue about the 1800s activity.


It wouldn’t be the last time Rainier had vigorous fumarolic activity. In the 1960s, the slopes of the mountain heated up and there were more gas emissions than usual and some steam explosions. The heat produced by the episode was so intense that it melted glaciers down to bedrock, but no eruption occurred. A similar thing could have occurred during the 1800s, but it was much longer lived.


It’s possible that what happened at Mount Rainier in the 1800s was similar to what occurred at Mount Baker in the 1970s. In the seventies, Baker heated up and began producing unusually large steam clouds, along with some blow-outs of lithic ash. (Basically, that’s ash that is not new, it’s just old and thrown around by the volcano.) No eruption occurred here, either. Geologists later discovered that magma had been emplaced under the volcano but it didn’t have enough energy to erupt, instead producing the heat that is still seen at the volcano today.


Why Mount Rainier’s heat production was only short-lived is a mystery that has yet to be solved. Maybe some hot water bubbled up and belched out of the mountain due to earthquakes. Who knows? We understand a lot about volcanoes, but there is still so much to learn.


Back to architecture, it took scientists a long time to discover what works and what doesn’t work in earthquake prone areas. Back in the mid-1980s, an earthquake struck southern California and destroyed a number of buildings that had been built up on stilts. The cement poles holding up the buildings shifted during the earthquake and shattered, causing the buildings to fall or be condemned. This was only a warning of what was to come.


Loma Prieta struck on October 17th, 1989, and caused significant damage in the San Francisco Bay Area and Santa Cruz County. This knocked down two significant structures. One was a freeway and the other was a building.


My mother remembered the mall in Santa Cruz well. She said it always made her nervous to be in the place because the upper floors always shook when you walked on them. It seemed like it was never a stable structure to begin with. During the 6.8 quake, the upper floors of the mall pancaked into the lower portion like a collapsible cup, crushing several people to death in its wake. It wasn’t just a natural disaster, it was an architectural one.


You can say the same thing for the Cypress Structure in Oakland. This multi-deck freeway structure was famous for being bouncy and shaky. Longtime Bay Area residents actually used to crack jokes about it. Dad once got his head stuck in his family’s car window as they pulled onto the freeway and he was stuck that way, screaming all the way as the freeway mercilessly bounced him up and down by the neck.


Anyway, like the mall in Santa Cruz, the Cypress Structure pancaked, the upper portion landing on the lower portion and turning to rubble in the process. Several people were trapped as a result, and many of them died. It seemed that the architects who built the freeway were not keeping earthquakes in mind.


Since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1994 Northridge earthquake that devasted the Los Angeles area, changes have been made to new architecture to keep earthquakes in mind. Old buildings were retrofitted with steel crossbeams across unstable areas, while new buildings were built to different codes. This is not just happening in California, but all over the West.


I know that several buildings in the Portland, Oregon, area are built on rollers to absorb the shock of large earthquakes. This is why the mall in Clackamas occasionally trembles.


But the architecture of the West is being forced to go through more changes due to natural disasters, and it has nothing to do with earthquakes. A combination of climate change, fuel overloads, and failing electrical infrastructure has led to increased wildfires in the region, and as people view these flaming disasters firsthand, they are seeing problems with local architecture.


It started in 1991 with the Tunnel Fire in Oakland, California. That October, an isolated wildfire started on an extremely windy day. The local fire chief, a transplant from the East Coast with little knowledge of western fires, directed his crews to put the fire out and then left the scene with no observer. Winds rocketed to seventy miles per hour that fall day, reigniting the hot spots and sending a wall of flames into the Oakland/Berkeley Hills, where it destroyed hundreds of homes, and killed several people.


There were two things that were observed with the homes that burnt. Almost all of them had wood shake roofs. The fire made its way into a eucalyptus forest, raising temperatures to blistering heights and catching these wood roofs on fire in an instant. California fire officials made wood shake roofs illegal after the incident, changing architectural designs for the better.


But there were still changes to be made. Houses with round Spanish tiles were also burning in larger numbers. It turned out that embers were going under the Spanish tiles and igniting the roof from underneath. Most new construction either doesn’t include these tiles or the tiles are closer together and have screens on them to prevent the embers from getting inside.


Regulations have been put in place in most western states that requires all roof spaces and vents to be covered in a screen to prevent embers from igniting the roofs. On top of this, architects and engineers are looking for better materials to design more fire-resistant houses.


I’m just saying, though, it would also help not to develop in historically fire-prone areas. The big fire blow-up of 2017 burnt down a significant portion of Santa Rosa, California, especially in the Coffey Park area. This area had already experienced a significant wildfire back in 1964, which burnt in almost exactly the same pattern as the 2017 fires. Since that time, several housing developments filled the region, setting the city up for disaster.


As population increases in southern California, developers are digging deeper and deeper into the chaparral territory. Unfortunately, this area is prone to frequent, hot, and large wildfires. They are actually a part of the ecosystem function there. People who live in the region now are constantly hounded by fire, to the point that internet memes joke about it. Several lawsuits have come out of this, but little is being done to prevent building in the area.


As you can see from this article, science and architecture are more complicated than you think. It’s not just about designing cool houses. You’ve got to think about earthquakes, fires, wind, hurricanes, floods, and whatever else occurs in the areas where you want to build. Even the build site itself can affect what you design. It kind of makes me glad that I changed my mind on my future career.


I recently chose an easier path- teaching. (Note that sarcasm is hard to portray in writing.) Wish me luck on my Praxis test and nine months of accelerated learning classes. Okay, so maybe I didn’t pick architecture because it was too easy. I don’t know.

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